The Queen's Gambit: The Making Of

Episode Summary

Kicking off Season 4 of the WeAreNetflix Podcast are William Horberg (Executive Producer of The Queen’s Gambit) and Blair Fetter (Director of Original Series at Netflix) for an inside look on the creative partnership between Netflix and The Queen's Gambit producers to bring this beloved series to life.

Episode Transcription

[Narrator] This is, We Are Netflix,


Netflix employees talking

about work and life at Netflix.


(Netflix intro sound plays)


- [Bill] I don't wanna

sound like a sycophant


because I'm on the We Are

Netflix podcast, but genuinely,


this was one of the best

studio experiences I've had,


in my 30, 40 years out in Hollywood.


- [Lyle] That's Bill Holberg,


talking about working

on "The Queen's Gambit."


Now, watching people play

chess may not sound enthralling


all the suspense of the game,


if you can find some is internal, quiet.


In other words, hard to

capture cinematically.


But producer Bill Holberg

has actually done it twice.


First in the 1993 film,

"Searching for Bobby Fischer"


and now on Netflix with the hit series,


"The Queen's Gambit."


Both stories are about

young chess prodigies


and both happen to be about

a lot more than chess.


"The Queen's Gambit" has

been a huge hit for Netflix.


In the series first 28 days of release,


62 million households chose to watch it


making it Netflix's biggest

scripted limited series to date.


The show made top 10 in

92 different countries,


ranking number one in 63 of them.


And the series' culture impact

went beyond people watching.


After the series launched

search queries for chess doubled


and searches for how to play

chess hit a nine-year peak.


Chess sets have dramatically

increased in sales


and the number of new players

on chess.com has skyrocketed.


I'm Lyle Troxell, today on We Are Netflix,


I speak with executive

producer, Bill Holberg,


as well as Blair Fetter,


Director of Original Series at Netflix


all about how the series came to life.


From the pages of Walter Tevis's novel


through a years long adaptation

process to the screen.


That novel by the way,


has now landed on the New

York Times bestseller list


37 years after its release.


And it's where we

started our conversation.


Bill, when did you first read

Walter Tevis's 1983 novel,


"The Queen's Gambit?"


- [Bill] Well, I was

tipped off to the book


by the wonderful author, Michael Ondaatje,


writer of "The English Patient."


I met him through Anthony Minghella


when we were making "The

Talented Mr. Ripley"


and Ondaatje told me this

was one of his favorite books


and that it was something that

he read every couple years


to remember how to write.


He was just so admirable of

the craft of the storytelling


of Walter Tevis, so he's no slouch,


and with that kind of recommendation,


I ran out to buy the book

and I just consumed it


and loved it and started

wondering why hasn't anybody,


made a movie out of this.


And lo and behold, when I

went to track down the rights,


it turned out, they were held

by an old friend of mine,


the wonderful Scottish man,


who's a producer and a

screenwriter named Alan Scott.


- [Lyle] And then Alan

kind of became a partner


in this project, yeah?


Well, Alan, let me become his partner.


He had actually acquired the rights


probably in the late

eighties, early nineties,


and he, so he had been at it

for about 10 years or more


by the time I tracked him down.


And I just said, "I love this

book and I'd love to help


"and if there's anything I

could do to join forces with you


"and see if we could

get this over the hill,


"I'd love to team up," and he was gracious


and we started working together.


And at that time we were

really focused on making it


as a feature film.


Alan in fact had written a feature script,


his own adaptation of the book.


And we went to a number

of different directors,


starting with Bernardo Bertolucci,


who Alan was in discussions

with really way back in the day,


there were always a number

of high-end filmmakers


interested in this material.


My friend, Tom Tickfur

was going to direct it


and he and Alan and I worked on


a draft of the script together


but then he went off to make "Perfume."


I brought it to Mark Forster,

I brought it to Frank Oz


and eventually I brought it to Scott Frank


who I just had a strong hunch


would really connect to this


probably because he wrote

"Little man tape" back in the day


and I could tell that

he was already kind of


leaning into this territory of exploring,


child prodigies and genius characters,


precocious characters, and Scott loved it.


And he and I ran around

trying to find a home for it


but it never quite added up,


it's not a really

inexpensive story to tell


because it moves all around America,


and then it moves to Europe


and it takes place in seven

or eight different cities.


- [Lyle] And when you were having


this earlier conversation with Scott,


Frank, you're also

talking about it as a film


which makes it a secondary challenge.


- [Bill] Yeah, we were focused

on making it as a film,


Scott and I and this was in the oughts,


probably 2005, six, seven in there.


And you know, there still

was a market at that time


for independent films and

financing and distribution,


but the kind of cost

value equation of this


just never quite lined

up to crack the code.


- [Lyle] Bill, were you

worried about producing this


that you'd be labeled as

a a chess movie maker?


Concerning your wonderful success


with "Searching for Bobby Fischer?"


- [Bill] It's very funny to me


that I kind of started my career,


and maybe now I'm in the

twilight of my career


book-ended by these chess stories


but I didn't really come to

either of them through chess.


I'm not a chess player myself.


I really came through the books.


I was given the book of

"Searching for Bobby Fischer"


by Scott Rudin and when

I was at Paramount,


we had a deal with Steve Zaillian


and we were looking for something for him


to adapt for himself to direct

and I just loved that memoir,


it was so beautiful as a father son story


and really about parenting

and about competition


and the nature of the

competition between kids.


So it was in the chess world.


And of course that was

a big, big part of it


but the themes and the relationships


are what really drew me to it,


then I would say the same

with "Queens Gambit."


It has a wonderful,

exciting sports narrative


but what made me think

that this could really be


a more universal story and

accessible to an audience


beyond people who play chess

or care about it in any way


was really the character of

Beth Harmon and her trauma


and her coming of age


and her tremendous emotional

journey in this piece.


And that just carried

me along as a reader.


And I thought, if I'm having

this level of experience,


I think an audience would

really connect to her


in the same way.


- [Lyle] So Alan Scott's in love with it,


you're in love with it.


Scott Frank's in love with

it, it's 10 years ago.


And then fast forward,


Blair, will you tell the story

from Netflix perspective?


How do you first hear about the pitch


of "The Queen's Gambit" as the title?


- [Blair] It started with

the limited series, "Godless"


which was a feature film

that Scott had written


like 15 years before and

had never quite found a home


to get it made as a movie.


And he pitched that to us

and as a limited series


and we really had one of the most


amazing experiences with

him to sort of watch him


expand that script to seven hours


and go through the production


and we just had such a great time,


we were so proud of that show


and such an elevated sort of Western


but when we were sort of wrapping it up,


we immediately started

talking to Scott about like


what can we do next?


And he shared the book for

"The Queen's Gambit" with me.


- [Lyle] So you just liked

working with Scott Frank so much,


you just wanted to do

another project with them?


- [Blair] Well, yeah, I

mean, it just felt like


he did such a good job with "Godless"


in doing something that what

it was bigger than a movie,


but it wasn't ongoing series,


it was just this sort of special thing.


And it wasn't that we were,


Oh my God we have to do another

limited series with Scott,


it was just, he's just a, a dream partner,


very responsible and a joy to work with.


So we merely, we sort of

pitched things to him,


he pitched stuff to us.


And I really gravitated to the book


in the same way that

Bill spoke about in that


it's a really easy read, it's so fun,


it really makes you feel

good when it's all done.


I was a big fan of

"Searching for Bobby Fisher"


so I really like immediately

saw how you can make chess


feel like a dramatic sports

movie to a certain extent.


So it wasn't a traditional,

like pitch, here's the show,


it was just Scott saying,

"What do you think about this?"


And then we said, "Yeah, let's do it."


And then we sort of went from there.


- [Lyle] Okay, so the pitch

is, Scott of course says


you gotta read the book, start off.


So you read the book Blair,


and he talks with you a bit about it.


But then at some point there's probably


a more formal process, like, what is this,


what does the actual structure look like


for you all to sit down?


How big is the group?


Before you said yes,

yes, you know that stage,


what does that look like, Blair?


- [Blair] I mean, truly it's a,


it was a very informal process.


I mean that we, we said like,


"Hey Scott we would love

to do this with you,


"but how about we make it a

deal where you write the pilot


"so we can kind of see exactly what it is


"and then we'll sort of go from there?"


So it wasn't a typical

story to series endeavor


like we do often this

was a little more like


let's just see where it goes

and he was game to do it.


And of course the first

draft he wrote was exquisite.


And we were really aligned I think about


what made it special,


so there were no

surprises in that process.


And then it was I think

it was somewhere in there,


he introduced us to Bill

as his partner in this.


And you know, I think we

all kind of saw eye to eye


about what needed to be adapted.


So much of the book takes

place inside Beth's head


and we knew that that was

gonna be a tricky thing


to sort of visualize on the screen.


And, but it was very

clear from the beginning


that he could do it.


It's one of those things

where if you hear the logline


like period chest show,

doesn't sound very commercial.


But when you read the book and you hear,


sort of the excitement from Scott and Bill


it's really easy to go like,


"Oh yeah, this is a no brainer."


- [Lyle] And you look

at their work as well


for their past work and

know that they can do it.


- [Bill] I was a studio

executive for about five years


and what Blair is describing

is that classic moment


when somebody made a hit movie for you


and then you say, "Hey, we love you,


"What do you wanna do next?"


Then they pull out their

orphan girl chest book


and say, "Here, it is, man,

this is my next project."


And it's not exactly what

you were kind of hoping


they were going to walk in the door.


- [Lyle] And you say, well,

why don't you write a pilot,


and we'll see?


- [Blair] No, I truly, truly was that,


I truly really respond to the book


and felt like it was

a worthwhile endeavor.


I know exactly what

you're talking about Bill


but it was really like.


- [Bill] No, but I have to say like,


here's the book, read it moment.


But then when you read the book,


it really kind of flips

on its head and you go,


Oh, I get it, I get why these guys love it


and they wanna do it.


- [Lyle] The making of films

is still kind of a mystery


in a lot of sense to me and

I'm sure a lot of people.


You hire, like, so Bill's

already attached to the,


this piece, they've worked together,


Scott and Bill have worked together,


they know each other, they've

talked about this piece


so he's involved.


Blair, do you hire Scott to do it?


Like, how does the relationship,


the financial structure work?


Is it corporation starts

what happens Blair?


At the, what's the next step

you're gonna move forward?


- [Blair] The next step was that,


yeah, I think, our deal

with Scott was that


we would read the script


and then agreed to Greenlight the show.


And I think we had a conversation about


sort of the size and scope

of it because at its core,


it's a very intimate character drama,


but it takes place across the world


and so we all kind of agreed


what the sort of size of

the production could be


that would make sense.


And Scott and Bill were great partners


and they agreed we all aligned

pretty quickly about it


and then, you know, we

hit the ground running.


Scott was writing all the

scripts and Bill was no,


hiring all the crew and sort of deciding


where the locations were gonna be


and that was, it was not

easy, but relatively seamless.


- [Lyle] So before you launch it,


you have to talk about

how much it's gonna cost,


but that it's gonna be multiple location


that you've got to have

all these period pieces.


That's a big piece of green-lighting it,


is that right Blair?


- [Blair] Yeah, absolutely.


I mean, I think it depends on the show


and what you think that

the audience is gonna be.


But I think this one, we knew it was,


we believed in the creative,

but we knew that there were


probably some barriers for

entry to some audiences


so that's why we wanted to make


a reasonable sized bet on it


and rather than say,


"Yes, Scott, you can go to all

these different countries."


And we looked at it and we

knew that like creatively


if we shot it in Berlin, we

would be able to, you know


shoot all those different scenes in Europe


and fake Kentucky and so

it all kind of made sense.


- [Lyle] And have some

impressive buildings


to shoot in that already

have a lot of what we need.


- Yeah.

- Yeah


- [Bill] Yeah, that was

not an obvious choice


because there's not a

single moment in the story


that takes place in Berlin


but it was driven by two things.


Scott had a number of his core

team returning from "Godless"


his cinematographer, Stephen

Meisler, amazing editor


Michelle Tesoro his AD,

Aldrich Porter came back


but he was looking for

a production designer


and looking for somebody who,


had a particular skill set

and aesthetic vision let's say


to do this show it's fifties,

sixties cold war era,


as I said, it moves around a lot.


So it's a show where building

the world of the show


is very much a huge part

of the experience of it.


And he and I had a kind of kismat moment


where we both realized that we

were big Babylon Berlin fans.


And we were kind of using

that as a comp of wow,


what an elegant, classy period production.


But it looks very lived

in, it doesn't look like


one of those period shows that's

kind of preserved in Amber


and that was really important to him.


And I said, "Well, the

guy who designs that


"is an old friend of mine," Uli Hanisch,


we had worked together about 20 years ago


on a movie called "Heaven."


And I said, "Let me call him up


"and send him the book


"and see if he's available, interested."


So that was the key thing,

when those guys connected


it was like a Vulcan mind meld,


they just really were

riffing and very excited


about what they heard from

each other about the potential.


So we said, okay, well,

let's go over to Berlin


and meet Uli.


And at that point we were thinking like,


maybe we'll do 30% of this over here


because clearly we had to go to Europe


to shoot Moscow and Paris.


We weren't gonna be able to

cheat those anywhere else


but once we got there, it

just became a revelation to us


because all of Berlin


is basically built after world war two.


So the architecture in every aspect


really lent itself to this show.


And there's so much of

it that's interiors,


so it's hotel rooms, it's high

school gyms, it's ballrooms,


it's lobbies and certain

a number of halls.


And by the time we left

Berlin and I think,


maybe it was only about a five day trip,


it seemed obvious to us


that we could do our stage work there.


And then we walked into

this place and we said,


"This is Las Vegas in the 1960s


"here in the middle of Berlin.


"How is this possible?"


And so the pieces just

kept tumbling that way.


Mexico City was probably the last thing.


I was a skeptic.


I was like, man, if you can

shoot Mexico city in Berlin,


that's like next level.


- And you did, yeah.

- But we did.


- [Lyle] And did, did they

cost resign Gabriela also,


was she already in Berlin?


I mean, the design is so incredible


that it's worth mentioning many times.


- Yeah, well that first trip was Uli


and Uli's whole team.


You know we had a great

serendipitous thing


where the third season of

Babylon Berlin was finishing


and we kind of realized,


well, that crew is all gonna be available.


So Uli's the captain, but he

has like the best art director,


the best prop man, the best set decorator,


they were all like A plus people.


So we kind of said, "Look,

we want the whole team."


We also met with probably

the best line producer


I've ever worked with a

German man named Marcus Loges,


who has now got a second career


because Scott cast him to play Lushenko,


the penultimate Russian Grandmaster


that Beth defeats in

the Moscow tournament.


And through Marcus,


we were introduced to Gabriele Binder


who's also German, she had

done a movie I just loved


several years ago called

"The Lives of Others,"


It was an Oscar winning foreign film.


So we met her and she joined the team


and we tried to go local

as much as we could,


except for the people that

had continuity with doc.


- [Lyle] Blair, it sounds

like Bill and Scott


just pulled together these amazing people


they wanted to work with,

what was your job in this?


Just to sit back and go,

"Yes, they're doing great."


Explain the process of what you do.


- [Blair] Yeah, so as

a creative executive,


we're tasked with

green-lighting the next shows


that are going to be on Netflix


and making sure they're

as great as possible


and being as supportive to

the filmmakers as possible.


So on this one because we

had such a level of talent


at the top between Scott and Bill, it was,


obviously it's a, it's a

real luxury and privilege


to work with them.


So while all that was happening,


Scott was adapting the book

into the seven episodes.


So we were reading

those scripts with Scott


and bringing up questions


and we were really aligned with

him about kind of the goals


for the adaptation, how to shine a light


on what's going on with Beth


without having to be inside of

her head, like in the novel.


So my colleague, Laura Delanet Hay and I


as we were reading the

scripts, we went to New York


and sat with him and kind of went through


the whole thing with him.


We talked a lot about

the different casting,


you're sort of just holding

the hands of the filmmakers


along the way and helping them


solve all the different challenges.


So, you know, while they're on the ground


talking about Berlin we're

looking at all the look books


for all the different designers

that they're trying to hire


and obviously in this one,

it was a real privilege


because all the choices they

wanted to make were, amazing.


- [Lyle] Pretty good.


Were there times Blair

where you were like,


Ooh this has to change.


Or as a team at Netflix,


we feel like something has to change here?


No, I mean, I'd say this one,


we didn't really ever

butt heads on any creative


throughout the production.


I think when we were in post,


there's always sort of a push and pull


about specifically when

you have a writer director


who's really passionate

about the material,


there's a little bit of push and pull


about sort of the length of episodes


and sort of the pace.


And that's always sort of a discussion


and again, Scott and bill

were real fun partners


to have in post and you kind

of act as like sort of first,


the first audience to give them


this sort of first set of feedback.


But I mean, I would say of all

the shows that I worked on,


this one really, we were

in lock step along the way.


So there was never a lot of,


"Hey Scott, you should change this."


- [Lyle] Okay, okay,

that's your perspective.


Bill, was there a lot of

pushback from Netflix saying,


"You gotta do this, gotta do that?"


- [Bill] Well, since I'm on

the podcast, We Are Netflix,


no, I, I was gonna say I don't

wanna sound like a sycophant


because I'm on the We

Are Netflix podcasts,


but genuinely this was one of the best


studio experiences I've had


in my 30, 40 years out in Hollywood


from the top down, Cindy Holland


had read the book and kind of

blessed moving ahead with this


and Peter Friedlander and Blair and Laura


were great daily partners just

through the rough and tumble


of any production.


And they were extremely supportive.


They were very clear at the beginning.


This is kind of the box we want to fit in.


We don't see this on

the scale of a Godless


so we don't see the audience


necessarily having the potential of that


which we understood and agreed with.


And they gave us a kind

of template, a budget


and then we went through our process


and we had to actualize everything.


But, we were able to hit the target


and from putting the casting director on


before we really had all the scripts,


it was just kind of one vote

of confidence after another


our first choice was Anya Taylor Joy,


she read the book and loved it.


Scott met with her in London,


said this is who I want to star in it.


It was a very quick, yes.


And probably one of the most

impressive things I've seen


from my point of view was

the very quick support we had


for the casting of Marielle Heller


because that was not an

obvious choice by any means.


It was really a leap of faith

on behalf of the network,


knowing that she's a brilliant filmmaker


and she had been an actress,


but she didn't have any

body of work to look at


to really say, "Hey,

yeah, she could do this."


So it was just Scott and I saying,


"We really love her and think

she's got what it takes."


- [Lyle] Marielle Heller of

course plays Alma Wheatley


which is Beth's adopted mother.


And you knew her as a filmmaker.


- [Bill] Well, Scott had been her mentor


at the Sundance lab on her first film.


So they had a very close relationship


and he had already kind of shepherd her


through that process.


So he knew that she was an

actress who had become a writer


and now a director


and was kind of a triple threat, hyphen it


and she had had a very small role


in one of his previous films


that he had had to cut out actually.


So he kind of owed her one.


- [Lyle] So, why was her

casting unusual to you?


Do you feel like the studio

would have, in another situation


the studio would have stepped in and said,


"this is the actor we want to


promote this for this project?"


- [Bill] Yeah, it's a very

significant role in the piece.


And I'm much more accustomed

to the kind of pressure


to cast a certain level of marquee name


who the studio feels they can


then use to hang the marketing on.


But in this case, I think

with Scott, the fact


that we already had Anya, we

had Bill Camp, we had Thomas


there were other pieces in place already


that felt like this is a

really strong ensemble,


but nonetheless, I got to say,


I can't think of any other studio


that would have really so quickly,


supported us creatively and said,


"We're gonna back your play here."


- [Lyle] Blair, is that a risk for you?


Did you look at her and go,


"Well, she doesn't have a long history."


Were you questioning that decision?


Did you think about speaking up?


- [Blair] I think under

other situations maybe,


but again, it was sort

of like what Bill said


is like we had our cast

that was looking remarkable


and we had gone through the

experience with Scott before


and it's so easy just to

sort of trust their judgment,


'cause they're just pros.


So it didn't feel like

something worth pushing back on


and we're fans of hers

anyway, so it felt like,


yeah if he thinks she

can do it, she can do it.


- [Lyle] Yeah, all right,


let's talk a little bit about chess.


Bill you worked, as we

talked about earlier,


worked on "Searching for Bobby Fischer."


And at that time you worked with


the chess expert for this piece

as well, Bruce Pandolfini.


And tell me about bringing him in


and when did you bring a chess expert in?


- [Bill] Bruce Pandolfini was

the very first call I made


when we kind of knew that this had a home


and was going to start being developed.


And I told Scott about my

experience with Bruce who,


he is the character in

"Searching for Bobby Fischer,"


Ben Kingsley, is playing Bruce Pandolfini.


And so the book was really

about him as the teacher


of Fred Waitzkin's son.


And I just said, it's not

just that he's a chess master,


he really has a unique

ability to help the filmmaker


understand the mechanics of the game


and how to work with it and help them


with the kind of visual language even.


But he has a real gift

to talking to the actors


and just making them

relaxed and comfortable


and teaching them quickly

to be able to look like


they've been playing

chess their whole life.


And the volume of games

in "Queen's Gambit"


was exponentially greater than

"Searching for Bobby Fisher."


I think at the end, we had developed like


300 complete chess

games that were going on


foreground and background.


So the first lunch we

had actually in New York


was with Alan Scott and Scott

Frank and Bruce Pandolfini.


And there was a wonderful moment


because I had known Bruce for 25 years


but I had no idea that he

actually had been hired by,


I think it was Random House

to be Walter Tevis' consultant


when he was writing the

book, "The Queen's Gambit."


And not only that, he

was the guy who suggested


the title of "The

Queen's Gambit" to Tevis.


So it was this great

feeling like, Oh my God


we're like sitting here

with the Queens Gambit,


like, he's right at the table.


And of course Scott loved him.


And Bruce started both working

with the casting people


in terms of trying to help

them organize the search


for actors that could look convincing


in some of these small parts.


And then also reading the scripts and


kind of giving Scott his authenticity,


smell tests kind of pass.


And then through Bruce,

we actually got introduced


to Gary Kasparov who of course is maybe


the greatest chess player of all time.


And we met Gary in New York.


And that was another thing where


there was just a kind of

surprise dimension to it where,


we knew he'd have amazing technical advice


around the chess and the show


but what we didn't quite expect was


that his own personal

biography and even his age


kind of mirrors Beth

Harmon to a certain degree.


And so he was able to talk very personally


about growing up in that

era, being a child prodigy,


the family dynamics, the school dynamics,


the getting into the Soviet chess system.


The fact that those KGB agents

are with Borgof in Mexico


came from Gary Kasparov.


He just said, there's

no way a guy like that


would be able to travel

around internationally


without minders who are

kind of shadowing him.


So Scott was a kid in a candy store,


he had Bruce and Gary on speed dial


and we needed all the help we could get.


We were kind of terrified about

how to make the chess play,


to really make it something that people


could watch and enjoy.


And Scott's whole key was it

had to have an emotional reason


for every single game.


There had to be some raison

d'être in Beth's old life


that kept us interested in

the context of the game.


- [Lyle] This brings to mind quite clearly


that you've just spoken about a lot of men


involved in chess and in an industry


that's very male dominant

in some respects,


but we're talking about


a female protagonist the entire time.


So where is the expert

from the female protagonist


who touches chess in the

in the sixties and fifties?


- [Bill] Yeah, I would say this,


we were kind of listening

to a lot of women


in our immediate family about

the characters and the drama


but on the technical chess side,


because of my past

history with Pandolfini,


and because that's a real job


that somebody has to have

a lot of experience in,


like being a the interface

between filmmaking


and recreating chess games on camera.


So there are other amazing now,


women chess players and champions


but it wasn't my impulse

to reach out to them


in the actual production of this


because I needed a very

specific skillset for that.


- [Lyle] The chess piece of it, yeah.


I guess I'm just thinking about that


we clearly see a very large challenge


of a woman leading

through that chess world.


And I'm just curious where that,


does that come from the book


and you're able to lean on that?


Blair, if you wanna step in at all,


what, from your perspective,


did you read this book and go,


"Oh good, we've got a strong

female lead on this piece?"


Is that an important aspect

of actually even producing it?


- [Blair] Yeah, I mean, I

think I responded to the,


the full arc of the

character and the under


I think they, the underdog quality to it


in the kind of sports movie piece of it.


And it felt like the character as a woman,


going through my someones

trauma in her personal life


and then being in this world where


she's a fish out of water

it was all exciting to me,


and Scott, his previous

series with us, "Godless",


was really a feminist Western.


And so I had a faith that he could tackle,


sort of a young adult coming of age story.


- [Lyle] Blair, when did

you know that this show


was gonna be as successful as it is?


- [Blair] Well the scripts

are really good obviously


and the dailies and the

design of it all was terrific.


So we always felt like,

okay, this show is very good,


it's gonna be great.


But I think the first glimpse

I had was my colleagues,


Peter, Laura and Cindy

Holland were in New York


for a premiere of another show.


And Scott was cutting,


and he hadn't shared

any of the cuts with us


but he let them go into the editing bay.


And I was stuck in LA, so I was jealous


but they all came out of that meeting


and all pinged me separately

to sort of say like,


"Whoa It's incredible."


- [Lyle] What do you mean


he wasn't sharing the cuts with you?


Is that a standard practice for us


that we just let the creatives go for it?


- [Blair] Well, he was in the process


of doing his director's cuts.


So there's a, he has to have


typically in an episodic series,


the director has a few days

they give to the producers


and eventually it makes its way to us.


This one, because he

directed the whole thing,


he had a few months to

work on his assembly


before he was gonna share with us.


But as a collaborator,

they were in New York.


He said, "Why don't you come over?"


And he showed them, I think,

just a handful of sequences.


And it wasn't something, he

was gonna email it to us.


And it was just, they

were in New York and,


we're all friendly and they

all came out of that meeting.


And like, I literally got a call


from each one of them separately.


Like, Whoa, it's really good.


And so I think that's the,


that's like, that first time

you see it, you go like,


"Oh, okay, it really does work."


We think it's there, we

on the page, it's there,


the performance of the dailies look good


but once you kind of see it cut together,


and then I'd say, it

just sort of felt good


from that moment forward.


- [Lyle] Bill, what about for you?


When did you know we had a, a hit?


- [Bill] Probably Monday, October 26th.


- [Lyle] Release day.


- [Bill] Yeah, I mean, we

were very proud of the show


and we knew we had a caught

lightning in a bottle


with Anya and her incredible

performance and Marielle


and the actress who played Jolene.


And so it felt very strong, I just think


it was beyond any of

our wildest imagination


to contemplate that this chess drama


was gonna hit the Zeitgeist

and become this wildfire


and word of mouth phenomenon


and those are things

you just can't predict.


When something like that happens,


it's just the right character

at the right moment.


And somehow, Beth Harmon

was kind of the hero


that we needed at the end of 2020


in this kind of existentially tough year


that we've all been living through.


And then, when we got

that call from Netflix,


it was on a weekend.


- [Lyle] You're talking about

the producers call, right?


- [Bill] Yeah, it was the producers call


the day before they announced


that this was the most watched series,


limited series of Netflix history.


That was just like, you

gotta be kidding me.


(Bill laughs)


I mean, it was an incredible feeling


and to see all these young

girls signing up for chess clubs


and chess set sales going through the roof


and it's become just a part of

like pop culture vernacular.


And I don't think anybody

involved with this


in their wildest dreams could

have seen that happening,


or we would have like bought stock


in chess set manufacturer companies.


- [Lyle] Blair, what was your,


what was the biggest surprise for you


with regards to the success?


- [Blair] I think for

me, like you buy a show


and you're, as you're seeing it through,


you have to kind of

explain to a lot of people


what you're working on and why you like it


and I would always sort of

pitch the show to people


and talk about how, like,


I think there's a lot of cool

entry points to this show


for a lot of different audiences,


it's a really classy period drama


for the people who like "The Crown."


And I think it's got this

really great young adult


coming of age story, and it's

really like a sports movie.


And so I'd always sort of talk about,


Oh there's all these different audiences


that could totally love this show.


And I didn't, in my

head, I didn't think that


all of them would totally do that.


- [Lyle] You were trying to

convince other people, right?


- [Blair] Yes, yes, yes, yes.


So like the sports movie thing was always


the pie in the sky and

then I'm on this text chain


with Bill and Scott and lo and behold,


somebody is watching football

and like on the broadcaster


was using "The Queen's

Gambit" as an analogy for,


a football game.


This is like a few weeks ago.


So it really feels like


we did kind of get all

those different audiences.


- [Lyle] What do we share with

our creative teams like this?


Like you had the producer

call you, share some numbers,


we've shared publicly some

numbers about this show


but what do we typically share


with the people that make shows with us?


- [Blair] Yeah, I mean,

I think transparency's,


important to us.


And so the first thing

is there's a daily top 10


in various territories countries,


of the top 10 things that

are on Netflix every day.


With our filmmakers we share the like,


a 10 day update and a 28 day update.


And we give them a number of households


that have started the show,

so watched two minutes


and then a number of households


that have completed the show.


And so they can really

get a sense of sort of


how many people are jumping in,


how many people are really loving it.


This one's a little

unique because I think,


it performed so well that it made sense


for us to share that.


So we gave these guys another

update sort of in the middle.


So they knew that was happening.


- [Lyle] How'd that feel for you Bill,


finding out what the numbers were like?


And did it feel like we

were sharing enough with you


about what was going on?


- [Bill] Well, I have

no point of comparison,


I've really mostly been

in the feature space


and it's all about pre-release awareness


and tracking numbers and opening weekend.


And usually by Saturday morning,


like they've done an ultimate, they say,


"Okay, this is your film will end here"


and there they're sadly

always pretty close.


So this has been kind of a

super fun learning curve for me


really getting a peek under the hood


of the whole marketing machine at Netflix


was really interesting and impressive


and I was really loving


all the creative materials

that they created.


And also it's so like, not

about an opening day for them,


it was very counter-intuitive for me.


Well, we're just gonna drop

the show on October 23rd


and see what happens.


Then we're like, "What

do you mean drop this?"


- [Lyle] That's on a Thursday,

what are you talking about?


- [Bill] So, yeah, I've really been


hungry for every little

aspect of kind of watching


how this works and

seeing how it goes down.


And I'm curious now, of course, like,


well, where are we at now?


Like once you get into that.


- [Lyle] Once you get the taste

you want it more and more?


- [Bill] Well, that whole figure,


like the metrics of household

starts and completes,


it's just a different language.


- [Lyle] And the top

tens in different regions


and such, yeah?


- [Bill] Yeah, how it's

working internationally.


- [Lyle] Why do Blair,


why do we share this

information with the creators?


Like we've hired the team,

you made the decision


to put the money down and

actually pay for the show,


congratulations by the way,

Blair, and they produce it


and they make this amazing piece.


What, why do we feel like it's important


to share this information

about how well it's done?


And we're not doing a

commissioning kind of thing,


we don't, like in traditional

opening weekend ticket sales


some of the people are above the line


and actually get a

percentage of how much money


the film's gonna make, that's

not the situation here,


so why do we share it?


- [Blair] I mean, I just

think we want the people that,


we want our partners, I think to


know exactly how our

consumers are engaging


with the material that they've sweated


for the last two years

creating it's just to me,


it's always been something that's,


well before we started

sharing more information,


it was always kind of I always struggled


because I wanted to be

able to tell them exactly


all the number of people


but now that we do it,

it's really rewarding


so people know exactly how many people


that they've entertained.


- [Lyle] It sounds like

you're all working together


as a really collaborative

team in some ways.


So it seems like you would

wanna share information,


that does make sense.


I'm glad we're doing it as well.


And it's been so exciting

to see from the outside


at some level, you know, how

successful the show has been.


And of course my family

is in love with it.


So thank you Bill for making it


and Blair for for green-lighting it.


Blair, how much, like you

had to do a prediction


and Bill even mentioned earlier

that the amount of money


that potentially could

have been spent on this


was slightly reduced


and you always have to

control budget and everything.


Blair, how did you decide

where that cap was?


And obviously you could have

spent a lot more on it as well


because it's done so well for us.


So have you made some learnings on that


with regards to budgeting,


with regards to the stats

that have emerged from it?


- [Blair] Well, I mean, I

think it's really like an art


and a science and that

you can, it's really easy


to look at what you

think a show is gonna be.


I mean, obviously you buy it


because you sort of have a

sense of what it is gonna be


and how big the audience is,

but at the end of the day,


it's really just sort of

like intuition and judgment.


That is, I think, driving those decisions.


So yeah, like this one, we

knew that it couldn't be


a teeny tiny show because it was gonna be


a global spanning saga.


- [Lyle] And a period piece as well.


- [Blair] Yeah, it's just about

finding that healthy balance


to really deliver on the spectacle of it


but also not make it

impossible for success.


- [Lyle] If you run into

another show that has


some kind of similarities to this,


are you gonna go and look

at metrics to figure out


if we're gonna do it or not?


Or is it still going to be

kind of like, if I like it,


and I like the people, and

I think it's a good show?


Like how do you make that decision


as someone who decides to

say yes or no to shows?


- [Blair] Well, I think

it's really just about


the kind of core of the

character journey at the heart


and that was something

that I think, looking back,


it was always undeniable along the way.


And that this sort of

period chess component of it


was always the thing that I

think threw people for a loop


but it was just a great story

about a great character.


And so I think you kind

of go back to that core


and then that's where you kind

of make that judgment call


about sort of how many people


can connect with that character.


And it's always gonna be

a bet, that's what we do,


and that's what's so fun

and thrilling about it.


So it will be.


- [Lyle] And it's always gonna be


an individual's decision too

which is kind of amazing to me.


It's always amazing to me


that you actually make a gut decision


on whether to do something like this.


- [Blair] Well, we don't do it alone.


There's a few of us that

all work together, so it's,


there's a whole team here

and we all talk about it.


Yes, there's a, ultimately

somebody's making the call,


but there's a lot of smart people here.


- [Bill] You only do it

alone when it doesn't work.


(Participants laugh)


Then they can point to you

and say, "Great idea, Blair."


(Participants laugh)


When it works, it's a crowded family.


- [Lyle] Let me, let me close by,


let me first ask you either of you


wanted to say anything

else about the project


or working together?


- [Bill] I wanna say again,

from my point of view producing,


teamwork is something that I would say


really described my

experience with Netflix.


Studios can get very balkanized


and you can deal with a

lot of internal politics


at different places.


And I really felt none of that here.


I mean, the post-production

team and the production team


and the marketing team

and the publicity team


and the people who were doing

the international dubbing


and all of it, it really felt like


everybody was talking to everybody,.


that everybody was on the same page,


that people were like

rooting for each other


and wanting to help each other.


And so that's fantastic

and as a filmmaker,


it's what you want to really

feel like your Compasses


are all pointed in the same direction.


And so then you can refine and fine tune


and because they weren't micromanaging us


then you're all ears

when they do have notes,


and you're very open to hearing them.


And so I felt like that was

kind of endemic of the process,


that when they had something

to say, it was always on point


and not, like sometimes

with studios, you go,


"What movie are you

calling the right producer?


"Or is this like different project


"that you're referencing here?"


- [Lyle] What about for you, Blair?


- [Blair] You know, I,

this one was just a,


just an overall, you

know, delight to work on.


Like again, like we

loved working with Scott.


It was so much fun to

get to know Bill on this


and to see these two


deliver exactly what they

promised at the beginning


and it's just been like gratifying

to sort of see the world


embrace something that,

I've had the privilege


to enjoy for the last couple

of years in various stages.


So it's very gratifying.


- [Lyle] Well, thank you both.


Well, let's find out what

you've been watching.


Blair, have you been watching lately?


- [Blair] I recently watched

"The Prom" with my family


and they were actually

really thrilled with it.


I mean, I didn't, my kids, I did not know


were fans of musicals, but

they were delighted by it.


It was a fun experience.


- [Lyle] Awesome, and Bill,

what have you watched lately?


I really just only recently

caught up with "Unorthodox"


and I found that really compelling,


I thought that actress was incredible.


I just watched at my

daughter's insistence,


a movie called "Never

Rarely, Sometimes Always."


And I thought that was very

touching, great acting,


people I'd never heard before.


"The Octopus Dude", I really loved it.


- [Lyle] "The Octopus

Dude", what is that called?


- [Bill] "Octopus Teacher",

is that what it's called?


Yeah, I mean, that was

so beautiful to look at


but also really moving.


They just had that New

York Doc Fest online.


So that was super great

because you could just access


their entire lineup and I

watched the Frank Sappa doc,


which I loved,


I watched this movie

called "The Dissident"


which was pretty harrowing


about the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.


And well, I just watched

that "Alex Give Me" doc


that was also incredibly

harrowing, totally under control.


- [Lyle] It sounds like

the list you're making


needs to be a public record


so that other people can pick it up.


- [Blair] Bill has seen

every movie stand up


and references all of them.


And so as somebody who's

watched a lot of movies


he makes me feel very uneducated


when he references incredible

movies from the sixties


that I've never even heard of.


Not just not seen, haven't

even heard of them.


- [Lyle] Well, Bill and Blair,


we have come to the final

of our time together


and I just wanna say that I was so excited


to talk with both of you, cause

I so much enjoyed the show.


What a pleasure.


Thank you very much for

sharing all this information


about how the production

actually gets created,


I really appreciate it.


- [Bill] Thank you Lyle,

thanks for having us


on We Are Netflix.


- [Narrator] We Are Netflix

is hosted by Lyle Troxell.


He's a senior software

engineer at Netflix.


You can keep up with "We Are Netflix"


on Facebook, Twitter,

Instagram, and YouTube.


To learn more about careers at Netflix,


go to jobs.netflix.com.


(upbeat music)